Why did Pope Francis not say “Rohingya” while in Burma?

Pope Francis meeting Aung Sang Suu Kyi

I promise I’m really not just sticking up for my football team here, or maybe I am a little bit unconsciously — I disclose a vested interest: I’m Catholic. I thought it was obvious enough why Pope Francis didn’t say “Rohingya” while in Burma visiting the regime, but apparently it’s not for some people.

He has said “Rohingya” publicly lots of times before in Rome — in homilies, in intercessions, and I think I remember a mention in transcript of a catechesis class he led back in 2014, when the persecution was not yet this severe.

There’re no grounds for doubting that he believes the Rohingya exist as an ethnic minority living in the area which is now called “Burma” or Myanmar for at least 250 years, before the current Nation-State borders, have rights to life and freedom etc. wherever they are, and are suffering ongoing genocide by the Burmese military and ultra-nationalist Burmese Buddhist mobs.

I think it was a very deliberate diplomatic tactic not to say “Rohingya” while there, which probably went against his natural inclinations. He might be mistaken, but I think it was a prudent and uncomfortable part of a diplomatic strategy to help the Rohingya as much as possible as soon as possible, even though he didn’t say their name when they probably wanted him to.

He was advised not to say “Rohingya” in Burma by the Catholic bishops in Burma — probably not because they hate the Rohingya or deny they exist as an ethnic minority native in Burma for hundreds of years or support the genocide, but because it’s a word which can kick off a lot of distractions between the Burmese military and ultra-nationalists vs. the relatively more moderate and internationalist and civilian parts of the new regime, which would result in the moderate parts of the regime losing influence, and he would simply be dismissed and have no further influence with them if he said it. Plus he might endanger the Christian minorities in Burma, particularly in Kachin state. I’ve seen videos of Burmese ultranationalists attacking Burmese Buddhist individuals who had tried to stick up for the Rohingya people. It wouldn’t take much now for them to turn and target another minority too.

I guess probably his diplomatic strategy was to increase the political influence of the civilian part of the Burmese regime relative to the military part, and not kick off any distractions between them when they should be discussing ending the military’s genocide campaign as soon as possible.

If he’d said “Rohingya” or explicitly denounced the genocide or denounced the regime as committing an ongoing genocide while there, he’d have virtue signalled to all the people who already agree and the home side would cheer for him, but then he’d have no further diplomatic influence on the Burmese regime, any part of it, because even the relatively more moderate parts couldn’t be seen to be associated with someone denouncing the military and ultranationalist parts of the regime or they’d lose their influence with the rest and probably get targeted themselves, which would result in no change for the Rohingya and no diplomatic second chance.

If he chooses not to say their name in Burma while visiting the regime mainly, he knows in advance he’ll get flack from his home side and people who usually like him, but there’s a better chance of getting the relatively more moderate parts of the regime — even if they’re also racist bigots and genocide apologists (e.g. Aung Sang Suu Kyi) but just not up for actually continuing the genocide, to have relatively more influence or take more responsible risks to end the genocide sooner, even if they’re only doing that to save face internationally with influential diplomats like him. Which is he going to do?

He’s not usually a man who minces words, but if it’s a choice between a trivial virtual signalling reward for him or a chance to help end the genocide sooner, he’ll take the flack and mingle with racists and genocide apologists and active genocidaires if he thinks it’s probably the best way to help end it sooner.

“Do those who have been murdered and raped do not deserve justice?” It’s an ongoing genocide. Even more important than honouring the dead is to stop the genocide as soon as possible. If that means postponing honouring the dead to prioritise trying to prevent more people being killed, so be it.

As a diplomat you have to pick your battles to maintain or increase your influence, spend your influence strategically, only make the side you’re trying to influence angry just enough and in ways that are most likely to be beneficial for your aims, and you have no direct power.

“The best thing the pope could do is speak the truth on every possible platform.” If he spoke the full truth on every possible platform, he might also say that the Burmese regime, and probably every other government and regime around the world more or less too now, are acting under the influence of the deceits and delusions of the devil, the Father of Lies and Enemy of humanity. That may be true too, but it wouldn’t help to diplomatically influence them to stop killing people as soon as possible.

He might be mistaken how best to intervene diplomatically. (Catholic dogma only claims infallibility of the Pope in extremely limited conditions, which means the doctrine of infallibility really only transfers the question from ‘What is true?’ to ‘What is an infallible statement?’, so it’s kind of useless.)

I think it’s too soon for anyone, including him, to know whether his diplomatic strategy was right or not, because, if he’s trying the strategy I think he is, it’s going to take longer to possibly work than just the time his visit will be in the mainstream media — weeks or months, not hours or days.

It seems weird to me when people who usually like him immediately go for assuming everything he’s said and done before was insincere.

Lapsed biologist retraining as a social data scientist, often writing about refugee rights advocacy and political philosophy.